' ' Cinema Romantico: Roxanne

Saturday, June 11, 2011


When I recently visited New York three of my friends and I stopped off at a way cool Brooklyn bar for a few drinks and some food and one of the establishment’s perks was showing three simultaneous movies with a certain theme. The theme of this night was 80′s and one of the films was "The Jerk." Three of the four at our table decided "The Jerk" was the quintessential Steve Martin movie. I, of course, was the holdout. 
I believe then and believe now that "Roxanne" sits atop the formidable talent’s canon.

Sure, he’s always thought of as a funny guy, "Born Standing Up." He’s remembered for his wacky late 70′s, early 80′s comedies or his 00′s slumming for paychecks, likely to fund his art collecting. But when I think of Martin I always think of his distinct ability to blend humor with wistfulness. I think of his inate ability to play happy and sad within the same frame. I think of him with his face shrouded in the shrubs beneath Daryl Hannah’s balcony as she tells him (even though it’s not really to him) his pouring forth of his heart on paper was “eloquent” which he aptly corrects as “Not eloquent – just honest.” Steve Martin, I think, wanted to be Wordsworth as much as he wanted to be Jerry Lewis.

The film is based on the 1897 Edmond Rostand play Cyrano de Bergerac and it opens with a nod to that material as Martin’s C.D. Bales, the fire chief of a Washington ski town, finds himself in a duel opposite two lugheads with a tennis racket and ski poles substituting for rapiers. It is clever and funny. But it is the moments right before this sloped duel that interest me most – C.D. leaving his house and bopping and skipping – literally – down the street and along the sidewalk singing Fats Domino’s "I’m Walkin." You have to be of a certain unswervable disposition to sing to yourself in public. This is the portrait of a carefree man in love with life! But then the two lugheads inevitably insult the elongated nose of C.D. and while we see that he has learned how to live with this funky appendage we will soon see that he has not necessarily learned how to deal with it. 

Two outsiders change his existence. The first is Chris McConnell (Rick Rossovich), an ace firefighter who has been called in to help instruct C.D.’s rather lamentable band of firemen, a group including Michael J. Pollard, weirdly hilarious, a young Damon Wayans and the town’s mayor (Fred Williard) who is spearheading Oktoberfest and says of his uniform, in that memorable Williard-ese, “I want it to say action with style. Sort of a GQ firefighter.” And while Chris may know just how to handle a burning blaze, well, when it comes to women he makes men clueless about females look like they’re totally in control.

The other outsider is Roxanne Kowalski (Daryl Hannah), an astronomer who has arrived to view a comet she has predicted will pass soon in the sky overhead. She is disarmingly sweet, incredibly intelligent, and one of the few fashionable women who roamed the style-confused 80′s, making the jean jacket vest look as innovative as Faye Dunaway’s mini skirts and berets in "Bonnie and Clyde." Roxanne and C.D. meet cute when she gets locked out of the home she is renting……naked. Again, Martin’s screenplay indicates its intentions. This easily could have led to crude and idiotic obviousness but Martin keeps the tone light and, dare I say, character driven. He asks if she would like a coat. She says no and then when she realizes he didn’t bring him a coat says, increduously, “I was being ironic.” Martin’s reply is classic: “Oh, irony. We don’t get that here. We haven’t had irony here since 1979 when I was the only practitioner of it and I stopped because I was tired of being stared at.” 

And upon getting her back into her home with the greatest of ease, he falls for her almost instantly, and how could he not, listening to her wax rhapsodically about her passion, the manner in which he steals little glances of her as she does so, luminously subverting the cheesy 80′s score that accompanies it. One of Martin’s most brilliant decisions, and a lesson which rom com writers of the here and now should heed, was to make Chris a genuine doofus as opposed to a raging prick, his looks offset by the fact that a ridiculously attractive woman sends him running to the bathroom to hurl into a trash can. This is identifiable. Even when he tells Roxanne, in a fit of pitiful desperation, ”Your knockers are like melons” you can’t get upset because, damn it, the guy is trying his best, and it makes it much more believable that Roxanne might be attracted to him in the first place.

Of course, one of the film’s stretches is that we are asked to believe she somehow fails to recognize the fact the guy of the “Your knockers are like melons” line is not the same guy sending her flowering tomes via the U.S. Mail (remember letters? Sigh….) and spouting prose from beneath her balcony. She even recognizes this fact out loud as he’s spouting it - “Your voice is different.” Ah, but that’s the whole point, isn’t it? In the midst of their inevitable argument about C.D. actually penning the letters that made Roxanne swoon, C.D. advises the handwriting and the signature didn’t even match. How could she not have noticed? “Because you wanted to believe it!” C.D. declares. “You wanted it all! All the romance and emotion, all wrapped up in a cute little nose and a cute little ass!” Harsh, maybe, but maybe true.

Like Jesse of "Before Sunrise" declaring “People have these romantic projections they put on everything that aren’t based on any kind of reality” (guilty!) or Elaine Benes of "Seinfeld", staunchly pro choice, learning her potential one true love might well be pro life and dismissing such a possibility because, “Well, he’s just so good looking”, the movie is well aware that problems with love are not always caused through deceitfulness by the other person but often by deceitfulness within our own minds. C.D. is so convinced his super sized protuberance will prevent him from ever finding love that he has to resort to ghost writing love letters to actually tell Roxanne how he really feels. He might be that fun loving guy who sings to himself as he walks, but he’s got self doubt just like the rest of us.

That’s the Martin I most enjoy – the sentimentalist. The Harris K. Telemacher of "L.A. Story" was a wacky weatherman, sure, but he wanted to leave the wacky behind him and find something real and meaningful in the traffic sign ravaged landscape he called home. Bobby K. Bowfinger’s effort to make a film was filled with wacky hijinks, yes, but he was one man grasping at one last shot to make his one big dream come true. It’s why when I look at Martin I don’t see the guy with the arrow on his head, I see the guy with the big nose.

Which is why I dig the way he chose to end his adaptation. Cyrano de Bergerac dies but C.D. Bales gets the girl. Hollywood eloquence? Nah. Just honest.

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